A new report on mariculture (marine aquaculture) has urged Pacific nations to think twice before embarking on sea-farming enterprises.

It found that many mariculture projects had been undertaken in the past without proper economic studies, particularly of the costs involved and the potential markets for fish products.

Mike Batty, Director of SPC's Marine Resources Division, says the Pacific has a 30-year history of failed attempts at mariculture.

"The lessons from these failures have not been learned," he said. "Mariculture is not easy and it's not cheap. Pacific Island nations should think of it as one possible option, rather than something to be promoted at all costs."

Potential difficulties include expensive feed, long cropping cycles, competitive markets, expensive transportation and products requiring high labour inputs. The report describes mariculture as a risky activity.

The report Opportunities for the Development of the Pacific Islands Mariculture Sector was released on Thursday 15 March.

It calls for more thorough market appraisals and estimates of production, distribution and marketing costs of any proposed new venture. The involvement of private industry at an early stage in research and development helps add a dose of realism.

The report includes on-ground assessments of mariculture activities in five Pacific Island countries (PNG, Solomon Islands, Fiji, Cook Islands and Marshall Islands).

Fisheries staff, fish farmers, traders, processors and finance organisations were consulted in these countries.

The report is not entirely gloomy about the prospects for mariculture. Some products in some countries show promise, but their potential has to be rigorously assessed to see if they could become sustainable industries.

The Pacific Islands are best known for pearl culture, although this industry is facing problems at the moment. Farming seaweed, shrimp, coral, sponges and some types of fish are among mariculture activities which can work under the right conditions.